Olá from Lisbon

A note of gratitude for the tiny wonder machines in our pockets

Bem vindo a Slow Build, which is how they’d say “welcome to” in Portugal where, it turns out, I’m spending the night tonight.

Today has been one of those travel days. The first leg of my trip back home to Washington D.C.’s Dulles Airport after working in Madrid this week was supposed to involve just a quick stop in Lisbon first — except it turned out we weren’t carrying enough fuel to safely do the sort of circling around the city’s Humberto Delgado Airport we were, for some undisclosed reason, being asked to do. So we instead touched down in the city of Porto in northern Portugal for an insta-refueling, and by the time we finally made it back down south to Lisbon my flight to Washington had already done gone.

So here I am, in an airport Marriott facing a day-and-a-half layover, busily Google Translate-ing up enough Portuguese to be able to order coffee in the morning. For what it’s worth, “Posso tomar um café, por favor?” (Yes, Spanish is quite helpful here.)

So, yep, one of those days. But also one of those days that reminds me just how powerful it is to carry a tiny supercomputer around in my pocket that’s connected to nearly all the world’s information.

With just a several-years-old iPhone, I was able to strategize ways home with my fellow passengers through a combination of web searches and airline apps, let family know what was up via texts and voice calls, find vegan options in the Lisbon airport via Happy Cow complete with a detailed map showing me exactly where to go, get an updated boarding pass without having to bother with paper, flash my PDF’d COVID PCR test results in an instant and figure out by firing up the CDC.gov website whether given that I’ll be entering the U.S. 18 hours later than I’d meant to I now need to get a new test before I’m allowed back into the U.S. (Nope. I think. Probably not.)

I’m sure I’m forgetting a dozen little ways that device and the networks it’s connected to helped make this convoluted journey a bit more manageable. That’s not just powerful — it’s empowering, giving us passengers more leverage than we otherwise might in this sort of situation (especially vis-à-vis a certain Portuguese airline I will not name but shan’t be flying again anytime soon). It’s the sort of thing that makes me hopeful about technology, if only we can get it right.

With that, here are some thought-provoking reads for your weekend, should you find yourself stuck in a foreign hotel or otherwise with time on your hands:

Microsoft and an Army of Tiny Telecoms Are Part of a Plan to Wire Rural America
Austin Carr, Bloomberg Businessweek

“With the Biden administration pushing ahead with its infrastructure bill, including $65 billion in broadband-related subsidies in the plan that passed the Senate, there’s a great debate playing out over which technologies the U.S. should bet on. Tom Wheeler, a former FCC chairman under President Barack Obama, is a fervent fiber-first advocate, but he acknowledges that the country will have to use every tool to connect the most isolated citizens. ‘I don’t care if they’re using a string and tin can if they can get the right throughput,’ Wheeler says of locations fiber can’t reach. ‘The question becomes, where do you draw the line?’”

In Race for 5G, Alarm and Security Services Get Stuck in the Middle
Steve Lohr, The New York Times

“In recent weeks, the F.C.C. has received numerous filings expressing concern about the AT&T sunset plan, from businesses and from public interest advocates and groups representing rural communities and retirees. AARP told the agency that an estimated three million Americans rely on personal emergency alerts systems. The technology, the group said, has been crucial in allowing older people to stay in their homes — especially important during the pandemic, given Covid outbreaks in nursing homes.”

How Amazon Ring uses domestic violence to market doorbell cameras
Eileen Guo, MIT Technology Review

“[S]ome domestic violence experts are concerned that these initiatives inject a combination of potentially dangerous factors into the lives of those they are supposed to protect: law enforcement that doesn’t always listen to survivors; a technology company with a patchy record on privacy and transparency; and programs launched without much department oversight—or input from experts on domestic violence.” 

Warning: self-promotion ahead

If you’ll indulge me, I have a technology-adjacent feature story I’ve been working on for some time out in the new issue of Washingtonian magazine. It’s not online yet, but if you happen to be a subscriber do check it out now in print or as part of your digital subscription. If you’re not, here’s a taste of the story’s accompanying art so you might have a guess at what it’s about:

Militant tomatoes? Maybe! Vegetable-themed toys for kids? Could be!

I’ll get into a bit of the backstory next week here in Slow Build — including how the story grew out of thinking through a particular slice of emerging tech.